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Two Decades On, IDA Assures That Docs Have Their Day

By Harrison Engle

In 1982, shortly after Linda Buzzell founded the IDA, she invited me to run for the board of directors, with the cheerful promise that it would require "only a couple of meetings a year." One of Linda's early goals was to shine a spotlight on the Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmakers, who, arriving in Los Angeles, were usually ignored by the press amid all the Oscar hoopla. I ran for the board, went on to serve for nine colorful, formative years, and happily have been involved with IDA since. Through a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, IDA has endured and steadily grown into the vision that Linda had for it, as an essential resource for nonfiction film and video makers.   

There is much to celebrate, for IDA has indeed raised the profile of documentary makers around the world and brought new recognition to our art form. But this success has not been easily won. 

Over its 20 years, one of IDA's greatest strengths has been the contribution of hundreds of volunteers. We have had outstanding staff leadership, including  the longtime team of Betsy McLane and Grace Ouchida, and our current executive director, Sandra Ruch, and managing director, Melissa Simon Disharoon. But what has amazed and touched me most is how much has been accomplished by our all-volunteer board of directors, committee members and board of trustees. So many individuals—including our volunteer presidents—have set aside time from their busy careers to contribute to IDA's growth. They have made it possible for our small organization to mount two decades of programs—screenings, festivals, seminars, the fiscal sponsorship program, the awards, the magazine, the website and other accomplishments.  

The past 20 years have been a blur of activity shared with friends and colleagues. As part of bringing wider recognition to documentary makers, I led the creation of the IDA Awards, chaired the first International Documentary Congress, and worked to develop our magazine, International Documentary. Past Presidents Robert Guenette and Jon Wilkman each took on responsibilities at difficult times and pushed IDA forward. Board members continue to make a critical difference: Michael Rose now ably chairs our Publications Committee; and Mary Schaffer has worked to enhance our website.

Today, new challenges and pressures make IDA more necessary than ever. Funding for independent documentaries remains extremely difficult, and after all the effort and sacrifice, where can these films be shown? Most independent docs simply can't find an outlet, regardless of merit. Most cable networks spurn acquisitions in any form, or offer license fees far below production costs. Theatrical release is prohibitive for all but a handful of films. 

Media "conglomeration" is having a profound effect. Nonfiction programs have proliferated on television, but there are few opportunities for personal expression. Too often, cable network programming is bland and formulaic—and virtually anonymous.

The recent effort to remove filmmakers' credits from programs is just one example of the power that basic cable networks have over the talented but vulnerable artists who produce their shows. Other challenges include low budgets, no ownership, excessive interference and the absence of credits in network publicity. IDA's successful efforts to keep credits on screen—through the Documentary Credits Coalition, led by past President Mel Stuart and current President Michael C. Donaldson—demonstrate new ways that we have acted to protect filmmakers' interests.

Fortunately, there remain some beacons of light. The Sundance Channel regularly schedules independent docs, and their new all-documentary channel is due next year. At HBO, Sheila Nevins has long enabled filmmakers to create unique programs that have won ratings and awards. PBS has also provided a home for documentaries with an individual stamp. P.O.V. and ITVS have been invaluable outlets. Ken Burns, this year's IDA Career Achievement Award recipient, has created a body of films through PBS that reflects his own vision and style. Other filmmakers have likewise created their own "brands"—signature productions that have drawn wide audiences.  

New technology should help open up the choked avenues of distribution. DV has already transformed production. Perhaps we will really see docs available via pay-per-view or on the Web. Digital projection should enhance commercial prospects for docs in theaters.    

As the basic cable networks struggle with miniscule ratings, they should rethink their reluctance to give a little glory to their filmmakers. By enabling artists to create work that has a personal stamp, by creating documentary "stars," cable networks can bring more, and repeat, viewers to their channels. It will be good business and will forge a happier relationship with the creative community. 

This is an era of excitement, energy and intense personal joy in making our films. But the truth is that we also face conditions that cannot be addressed individually. IDA must continue to lead the fight to protect documentary makers—to gain recognition for our creativity and help us develop sustained careers. I urge everyone to participate in building an even stronger IDA. Get involved and volunteer!


Harrison Engle is a director and producer of documentary and dramatic films.  Recent projects include a three-hour special, West Point: Honor and Tradition and The Spirit of InnerSpark, a profile of California high school arts students. He can be reached at